How to Apologise When You’re Called Out

Fox looking up at a human
Image by Peter Trimming (CC BY 2.0)

Yesterday was a terrible, horrible, no good day – until 6.20pm.

Man on the street: Hello.

[He gets a stare compounded of fury and trauma.]

Him: Is something wrong?

Me: You’re the second guy on the street who’s said hello to me today. And it doesn’t feel good.

That was the low point of the day. And then the world shifted.

Him: I apologise. It won’t happen again.

Me: [stunned pause] Thank you.

Thank you, random guy on the street.

It wasn’t just the words. Some men would have stepped back and raised their hands and not even realised they were mocking me with the implicit “Whoa there, crazy lady, I shall cooperate with your utterly unreasonable demands.”

This guy was quiet and matter-of-fact. He made it better, not worse.

I’ve been thinking about apologies lately because of the rope scandals a few weeks ago. Two well-known educators were involved.

Both guilty parties apologised in open responses which you can find here: report 1 and report 2. They’re long. But they’re not very good.

They say that a good apology has to include these four elements:

  • Contrition: “I’m sorry” or the equivalent.
  • Acknowledgement: I did X, and it was wrong.
  • Reform: I am doing Y so that it won’t happen again.
  • Reparation: How can I make up for the wrong I did you?

But I don’t think those things all have to be explicit. Sometimes “I’m sorry” is enough. Sometimes the rest is implied and understood.

You don’t have to say everything. But you’d damn well better not contradict your apology.

And that, I think, is where my guy on the street got it right, and those two kink educators failed. One of them gave the back story for a whole slew of minor issues, but never acknowledged the central fact that an agreed health limit had been spectacularly overstepped. The other expressed abject contrition and then screwed up on reparation by contacting the victim more than once after she had asked him not to. (And more.)

I think that kind of thing cancels out the apology.

One friend told me that he’s only ever heard one good apology in the kink community. All the others were defensive. That’s awful. But it means I’ve been very lucky, because I’ve witnessed more than one good apology. And one of them clearly demonstrates that you can explain things without sounding defensive.

The following messages happened after a domme unexpectedly gave me a brief massage at a kink event.

Dear [Domme],

Thank you again for [omitted].

I have been trying to figure out why I was okay (aside from being a little startled!) with your massaging me out of the blue, because I would have been scared and upset if a man had done it without warning, especially the second time. I think I was fine with you doing it because it’s the kind of touching that is acceptable in vanilla contexts, but at the same time I was startled because I’m not a touchy person (cultural differences?), and I was under the impression that there was a higher standard for consent in the BDSM community.

And unfortunately, I think it would have been difficult to tell you if it had bothered me. I’m guessing I’m the first person who has ever mentioned such concerns to you? This Kinky & Popular post seems to indicate that it’s the norm in the scene, and possibly bothers men more than women:

Please rest assured that I don’t think you went over the line (I don’t think there is a clearly defined line) and that I was very touched to be hugged when I came in. If I don’t come regularly to the munch, it’s because transportation is very difficult. You and everyone else have been great, and I’m really grateful for [omitted].

From [Domme]:

I apologize, there was a miscommunication from my side. When I gestured to do it, I thought I saw a non-verbal acceptance of the demo. I sincerely and greatly apologize for overstepping your comfort level.

From me:

You are fast. And gracious! I appreciate it, though of course there was practically nothing to apologize for in the first place.

From [Domme]:

Thank you. For me it is a big thing to apologize for. Overstepping is something that I am usually very conscious of as it plays a big role in consent. If I don’t check myself with something that is minor in your eyes, I risk overstepping in larger areas later. As a dominant that is something that I need to stay aware of. Thank you for pointing it out to me. When you pulled back after the second part I honestly thought it was because you just did not like the sensation. I need to school myself on the physical cues from those who are not comfortable with touching.

Wow. There are multiple statements of contrition, clarification of what happened, and intention to do better in future – and despite all of that, she doesn’t sound defensive. I was so proud to call myself a kinkster after this interaction.

We both knew that this was a tiny thing. But she also knew that major mistakes happen in exactly the same way. I really, really approve of doms who acknowledge their power and ability to misuse it.

Power comes in unexpected forms, though. Even female subs can screw up consent. Including me.

These emails happened after a Skype chat with a CollarMe guy.

Me: I am so sorry, I don’t think we have conversational chemistry. That’s what I should have said, but I chickened out and said I wasn’t getting a sense of your personality. Best wishes in your search.

Him: No problem.

Just a thought. I said I wasn’t comfortable going forward with video chat but you pressured me to anyway. Not a big deal for me either way (honestly I just thought my phone couldn’t handle it) but interesting in light of the consent issues we were talking about.

Good luck to you too.

Me: I apologise.

Him: No harm done. Just an example of how we all prefer not to take no for an answer when we want something.

Ouch. I remember the flare of indignation and denial. Pressure? What pressure?

But of course, he was the only judge of whether he felt pressured or not. If I wanted to do the right thing by his feelings, I had to listen when he told me he hadn’t given enthusiastic consent. And yes, I had power in that interaction. I’m a sub, but I’m a dish. (Well, at least a saucer.)

Of course, I wasn’t pressuring that guy on purpose. I think that’s why I bristled at his word choice. But if you need people to report your sins with flawless tact before you acknowledge them, then you’re headed for a lifetime of getting it wrong. So I’ll keep working on hearing the problem behind the criticism.

Comparing these with the bad apologies previously mentioned, the differences in tone are striking. The bad ones say a lot about how terrible they feel. And on the one hand, that’s understandable, because they were about much bigger things. On the other hand … they should feel awful! They don’t get extra credit for that part.

I think if you’re focusing on your own feelings, then that sends the wrong message about your priorities. Reparation is about making things right for the wronged party, not closure for yourself. But I can imagine that when it’s something big, it’s really hard to get past your own feelings. Maybe especially when you’re angry and horrified at yourself.

Maybe an apology is one of the many things that become harder when the stakes are high. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get it right.


What do you think?